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New Zealand's performances against South Africa suggest they are back to the starting blocks in Test cricket
Firdose Moonda in Port Elizabeth
January 14, 2013
The development of a butterfly has four stages. It starts as an egg, grows into a caterpillar, enters a metamorphosing pupa phase and, finally, becomes a grown adult. If Brendon McCullum's theory is to be believed, New Zealand are still eggs.
"This team and its life cycle is different to the South African team," he said, before glumly admitting that he could not think of a time when they had been fully formed. "It would have been a fair few years ago, I guess. There have been constant changes, be it for injuries or other reasons. This team is pretty young, as a group we haven't been exposed to such hostile cricket before."
To ask McCullum to remember the home triumphs over India and West Indies in 2002, or the win over Australia in Hobart last summer, or the recent win over Sri Lanka in Colombo, may be inappropriate in the aftermath of two crushing defeats. But his inability to recall a time when New Zealand had a solid grip over Test cricket seems to point to a harsher reality about their status.
McCullum is correct in his explanation of his team now because they exit this series as a unit searching for a beginning. With a batting line-up unable to hold their own, and bowlers who are constantly under strain because of that, the wide lens would say New Zealand have to start from scratch. The zoom will reveal more specific points for restructure.
The opening partnership has already been discussed, and in defeat McCullum conceded that is in area that will be reviewed. "We have to confront the new ball with some steel and some resolve," he said. But it is not the only area that could face overhaul.
New Zealand do not have a top six any bowling attack in the world would be nervous of. Occasionally, as BJ Watling and Dean Brownlie showed, they are able to put together a partnership or two. But those stands do not threaten; they merely irritate.
Once they are broken, the roadblock clears itself en masse, as Graeme Smith explained: "They were able to put small partnerships together but once we had broken through, we were able to run through them." New Zealand did not have a single century stand in the series, with their highest being 98 between Brownlie and Watling in this match. They had three half-century partnerships across the two matches.
Popular opinion is that the return of Ross Taylor will go a long way to changing that. Taylor is regarded among New Zealand's best batsmen and even if he does not come back to lead them (which seems to be the case), his contributions to the run chart will be needed. Taylor is due to play first-class cricket in the lead-up to the England series, which has been earmarked as his comeback.
McCullum is looking forward to it but spoke about it in the same way the England camp described Kevin Pietersen's return. "Reintegration must be smooth. I am sure he wants to come back and do well for New Zealand," he said. His choice of the R-word was interesting because, unlike Pietersen, Taylor was not the main protagonist in his own demise.
|"We trained hard but the ability to transfer that on to game day is what we need to work on. We've also got a pretty good blueprint of how the best team in the world goes about their business" Brendon McCullum|
Poor communication and the coach, Mike Hesson's lack of faith in his ability to captain led to him being left out, not shenanigans like text messages and being a cause of dressing-room disharmony. Many of New Zealand's players support Taylor - Martin Guptill, whose Twitter profile picture is of the two of them together, most obviously. Even Hesson, who has had differences with Taylor, admits that the team would be stronger with him in it.
If Taylor's return is a given, New Zealand's line-up will have a more solid look to it. McCullum will ponder moving down the order and there may be a move to bring Luke Ronchi in to keep wicket so BJ Watling can be promoted up the line-up. A certain amount of toying with combinations will be needed to get the best six in order, but it does not seem an impossible ask.
The bowling department is a simple puzzle for New Zealand to solve. Tim Southee will return to fitness soon, giving them back the leader of the attack, and Trent Boult was impressive in South Africa. Their veteran seamer Chris Martin said he believes Southee, Boult and Bracewell will form the pack that will take New Zealand into the future. If they all click, they could form a formidable trio.
Questions will still be asked of the spinner. Jeetan Patel may end up fighting Bruce Martin for a place. Todd Astle is also in the mix as is Tarun Nethula, but given New Zealand's other talking points, this one may fall slightly under the radar.
The tactics will definitely change but McCullum is warning against sweeping personnel changes because it will affect team culture. "There needs to be a little bit of change, but at the same time have to protect the core of the group," he said. "Players have come over here and learnt from the best. We are trying to find the right balance."
In experimentation, New Zealand have ended up falling to some of their heftiest defeats, but McCullum said there were things they could take out of the South Africa trip, like commitment to the cause. "I can't fault the preparation. It's hard to replicate facing guys like Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel in the nets but I can't fault the efforts. We trained hard but the ability to transfer that on to game day is what we need to work on. We've also got a pretty good blueprint of how the best team in the world goes about their business."
Something McCullum will want to take note of is that the current No. 1 side also started as eggs. They spent years in the interim phases, building for what they have achieved now. Some of that time was spent in frustration, some of it was in losing, but through consistency, South Africa learnt to turn that around. From being defeated, they turned into being defensive and eventually were able to transform that to winning. That is the kind of cycle New Zealand will want to replicate.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
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